Kevin Fulton, Elementary Science Department Head at Taipei Fuhsing Private School (@Fultonofscience) has been integrating a number of cogsci strategies into his teaching. In this fascinating blog post he examines the impact that explicit instruction, choral response, think-pair-share and low-stakes quizzing has had on his pupils.
Explicit instruction is a teaching framework that is designed to be systematic in its approach to vocabulary, skills, concepts, etc (Archer, 2011). It does this by focusing instruction on critical content, sequencing skills, strategies, and concepts in a logical way and breaking down complex concepts and skills into their smaller, more accessible components. Providing students with many opportunities to respond helps increase student performance (Haydon, Macsuga-Gage, Simonsen, & Hawkins, 2012). Explicit instruction does this in spades. In addition, many of the activities and applications are structured to allow the teacher to give immediate feedback to both individual students and the whole class.
One traditional model that fits within explicit instruction is “I do. We do. You do.” In this, the teacher first clearly explains the content and then models how to apply it. Then the class gets guided instruction, where everyone uses and applies the content. During this step, the teacher is checking for understanding and reteaching as necessary. Finally, after students have achieved a level of independence, students work independently, again, with the teacher checking in providing feedback.
In my class, I start each unit by giving my students a knowledge organizer. This is a useful tool because it has the most important vocabulary words, diagrams, and concept questions for the unit and can be easily used as a study guide (Lemov, 2018). I then use the knowledge organizer and a powerpoint to walk students through the vocabulary. As I go through the vocabulary, I work to put it into a larger context to help students see the big picture.
For example, when I teach convection currents, I begin by briefly explaining that convection currents caused the mountains to form and the continents to move. In addition to helping students better understand the Earth system (big picture) this makes convection currents interesting. How could a current of magma move entire continents? How could something underground make Mount Everest?
Then I explain how convection currents work with temperature changes leading to density changes causing magma to rise or fall. As I am explaining this, I draw a diagram on the board and students create their own diagram in their notebooks.
We Do: Choral Response
Throughout this process I am engaging the whole class with carefully crafted choral response questions that include the vocabulary words.
Teacher: “Closer to the core, the temperature is higher, making the magma….”
Students: “Less dense!”
Teacher: “Causing the magma to…”
In order to give a clear signal for a choral response, I combine hand signals with tone changes. To initiate choral response, as I am coming to the part for students to respond, I raise my arms like a conductor. At the same time, my voice rises slightly in pitch. Once you have established routine signals, your students will jump into the response seamlessly.
When students are responding, I pay careful attention to words that are off. This clues me in to misconceptions and misbehavior. Choral responses let you hear from the entire class, so you are able to quickly get a rough assessment of student understanding and can provide immediate feedback. It is easy to spot misbehavior with choral response because all students should be doing the same thing and the rhythm of choral response is different than the rhythm of conversation.
I will regularly return to and expand on the choral response as we go through a unit as one way to provide distributed practice. Expanding the choral response helps students to put different concepts together and allows them to see the bigger picture.
Continuing the convection current choral response…
Teacher: “Convection currents cause sea-floor spreading when…”
Students: “Magma rises.”
Students: “At a mid-ocean ridge.”
Teacher: “Then the magma…”
Students: “Crystallizes and pushes the oceanic crust.”
Students: “Continental drift!”
We Do: Think, Pair, Share
In addition to choral responses I will ask various extension and application questions as we work our way through the vocabulary words. So, going back to the beginning of a unit, I might pose the following “think, pair, share” (TPS) question, “Magma rises when the temperature increases because it is less dense. And it sinks when it is cooler because it is more dense. What happens to the molecules when the density changes?”
When I do TPS I require my students to quickly jot down what they are thinking because it will help them explain to their neighbor. Then after 20 seconds or so, I signal for them to stop by giving a visual countdown with my hand ending in a fist and saying “3, 2, 1, stop.” with a slight rise in pitch on the word stop. The beauty of this technique lies in its simplicity. If students don’t stop, you can ask an obvious question, “When I say stop, you should…”
Next, I restate the question and tell my students, “You have 30 seconds, tell your partner the answer. Go!” The short sharing time is intentional. It forces students to stay on task and makes it easier to spot misbehavior because, like with choral response, the rhythm of a conversation is different than the quick sharing of an answer. It is also important to train and/or signal the class to allow both students to answer.
As they are sharing I am walking around and providing guiding questions or extension questions to various groups based on what they have written and what I have heard them say. Finally, at the end, I randomly call on a student to share their group’s answer. Depending on the answer I might add to it or ask another group to provide more explanation.
This is how the notetaking portion of my classes goes when I am on my game. As you can see, this is not a dry lecture, it is very dynamic with lots of interactions between both students and teacher.
When I am introducing a topic, we might not get to the “You Do” portion, and that is ok. As the unit goes on and student knowledge grows, I schedule more time for independent work. When students are working independently, I schedule at least 15 minutes for students to get started on individual work. For the first 10 minutes, I go around the classroom reteaching the material, asking guiding questions, and helping students more fully answer the questions. I generally spend the last 5 minutes or so reviewing as a class to make sure everyone walks away with the right take-home message.
I mix in no-stakes quizzing with my explicit instruction. As a general rule, I have worked to make these quizzes brief (10 minutes max, ~5 minutes is ideal). Essentially, I use them as openers but call them no-stakes quizzes. This simple name change has had a real impact, 78%, or 67 out of 86 fifth-sixth grade students said that the no-stakes quizzes reduced their test anxiety. Other research has found similar results, Roediger, et. al (2011a) found 65%, or 86 out of 132 students reported that regular quizzing reduced their test anxiety.
My no-stakes quizzes include a mix of factual recall and transfer questions. This mix of questions helps me to see where students are struggling. Is it that they simply do not yet know the material? Or do they know it, but only at a superficial level?
After each quiz, we go over the answers together and students make corrections in pen. For a factual recall question like “How does a sedimentary rock become an intrusive igneous rock?” I might signal for a choral response before I write the answer on the board. This gives me a rough gauge on the class’s understanding and allows me to quickly correct any misconceptions.
After answering this problem, a possible extension question is, “Which type of igneous rock would have larger crystals? Why?” When I ask extension questions, the first question involves a choral response since there are only two possible answers, intrusive or extrusive. Then, after every student knows the correct answer, for the latter portion, I use an abbreviated version of TPS. I end the extension question by having a student explain the why and then I succinctly restate their answer for the class and we move on.
An example of a transfer question could be, “Sandstone, a sedimentary rock is on the sea-floor near a convergent plate boundary. Explain how this sedimentary rock could become quartzite, a metamorphic rock.” This is a transfer question because students must transfer knowledge about the rock cycle and plate tectonics to this particular scenario. I would follow a similar procedure in clarifying misconceptions and asking extension questions for transfer questions as I do for factual recall questions. It takes anywhere from 5-10 minutes to go over the quiz, correct misconceptions, and ask extension questions.
As far as how all this affects student performance, I have found that the quizzes have a rather dramatic impact on student achievement. In the graph on the right, all quizzes used a short answer format. The first two were identical no-stakes quizzes, while the final quiz was graded and used unique questions over the same content to help ensure students were actually learning.
In addition to my results, other studies found that frequent no- or low-stakes quizzes creates an environment that encourages studying (Mawhinney, Bostow, Laws, Blumenfeld, & Hopkins, 1971). Another benefit of frequent quizzing is that it helps students identify important topics and helps them monitor their learning (Lyle & Crawford, 2011).
Since implementing choral response and TPS into an explicit instruction framework, I have noticed several significant changes. My students’ recall of procedural and sequential knowledge has improved due to choral response. This has led to more student engagement among struggling and advanced students on the application questions I ask with TPS. Finally, my students are less stressed about summative assessments and perform better than before.
A final point of caution: Choral response; TPS; and especially quizzing are valuable tools but poor crutches. Do not force fit them into your teaching; intentionally integrate them with the goal being better teaching and learning.
- Archer, A. (2011). PDF. New York.
- Haydon, T., Macsuga-Gage, A. S., Simonsen, B., & Hawkins, R. (2012). Opportunities to respond: A key component of effective instruction. Beyond Behavior, 22(1), 23–31. doi: 10.1177/107429561202200105
- Lemov, D. (2018, August 27). Sadie mccleary’s guide to making and using knowledge organizers. Retrieved December 20, 2019, from https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/sadie-mcclearys-guide-making-using-knowledge-organizers/.
- Lyle, K. B., & Crawford, N. A. (2011). Retrieving essential material at the end of lectures improves performance on statistics exams. Teaching of Psychology, 38, 94–97.
- Mawhinney, V. T., Bostow, D. E., Laws, D. R., Blumenfeld, G. J., & Hopkins, B. L. (1971). A comparison of students studying-behavior produced by daily, weekly, and three week testing schedules. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 4, 257–264.
- Roediger, H. L., Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. B. (2011a). Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 382–395